Egypt Uses Fear to Fight Islamic Extremists
In one city that is an Islamic hotbed, the police are chided for their tactics
MALLAWI, EGYPT — THE palm-tree-lined route to the southern Egyptian city of Mallawi meanders along the Nile River where farmers harvest fields of lush alfalfa or high stalks of sugar cane.
But the pastoral setting is deceiving. In this city of 500,000, 186 miles south of Cairo, Egypt's Islamic extremists are fighting a deadly battle against the government's security forces, and villagers are caught in the crossfire.
More than 670 people have been killed in Egypt since the Gamaa Islamiya, the Islamic Group, launched its campaign in 1992 to overthrow the Egyptian government and install a pure Islamic state.
The campaign has mainly hurt Egypt's tourism industry. In 1992, 3.2 million visitors came to Egypt; in 1993, the number dropped to 2.5 million.
Islamic militants kill civilians suspected of cooperating with the police, and the police -- in an effort to drag the extremists from their hiding places -- have resorted to increasingly brutal tactics against innocent people. For many residents the security forces have become the biggest problem.
''Yesterday they took me from my shop,'' says Magdy, (not his real name), a vegetable seller. ''They drove me and other people around the village for five hours. If I didn't have a relative with the police I would be in prison right now.''
Besides detaining people without formal charges, security forces have gone after extremists in at least five villages around Mallawi by bulldozing and burning the homes of suspected militant members, according to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR). The government has also closed schools, post offices, and health clinics; cut off electricity and water; bulldozed sugar-cane fields; and killed farm animals.
The police want to maintain a level of fear among the people to keep residents from cooperating with the militants, many political analysts say. ''The police are not trying to be popular at the moment,'' says one Western diplomat. ''They are trying to eradicate [Islamic extremism.]''
In Mahras, a small village near Mallawi, half of one house stands with its entire front ripped off, the second floor drooping to the ground. Beyond it are more bulldozed homes.
''We're all living in fear,'' says an elderly woman. The people were still inside when the now-empty homes were destroyed, she says.
The families of suspected militants receive even harsher treatment. Police detain them without formal charges and torture and interrogate them to get information, hoping their tactics will force suspected extremists to come forward.
The interior ministry, however, has continually denied reports of human rights abuses. ''Egypt is a country which believes in human rights, including the right to life and the right to live in peace,'' says Brig. Gen. Mahmoud al-Fishawy, head of the ministry's media department. He says Islamic militants are the ones committing rights abuses by killing innocent civilians.
Individual policemen may be harassing citizens, Mr. Fishawy concedes, but this is not government strategy. ''We need the support of our people,'' he says. ''We want them to help us get information [on militants]. We don't want them to be against us.''
Since implementing a ruthless and systematic campaign to stamp out Islamic extremism in Egypt nearly two years ago, police have weakened the Islamic Group, the country's leading militant organization. Using informants and torture to get information on Islamic radicals before attacking, security forces have successfully driven them from Cairo and other cities, including their former stronghold of Assiut.
With an estimated membership of 3,000, the organization has its roots in the cities and villages of Upper Egypt. It was here that Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman (now on trial in New York for inciting the World Trade Center bombing), while a theology professor at Assiut University emerged as the Gamaa's leader in the 1970s.
With the militants now contained in Minya Province, the two sides are practicing an age-old tradition of these Upper Egyptian villages -- revenge killings. While the death toll is down from the all-time monthly high in January of 64 extremists, police, and civilians dead in Minya and 87 in all of Egypt, the killing continues almost daily.
Last week violence in Minya province led to 19 deaths, including the killing of two policemen, two civilians, and one extremist on Wednesday evening when militants opened fire on a train near the city of Minya. Authorities believe this attack was in retaliation for the shooting death by police of three militants in the same area that day.
March, however, has brought some reprieve for Minya Province, according to the EOHR head in Mallawi, Ahmed Abdul Malik. While a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew still stands in many villages, the government has stopped bulldozing houses and closing government buildings, he says. The police are also destroying fewer sugar-cane fields, since it is harvesting time.
Still, the mass arrests and harassment of innocent civilians continues. Police arrested nearly 250 people in a five-day period earlier last month in Minya province, according to the Agence France Presse news service and according to the EOHR, 44 people were killed. Mr. Malik says the security forces detained around 300 people a day in February.
Mallawi residents say the police harassment is constant. ''Everyday they are on the streets. The same people, every 10 minutes,'' says vegetable seller Magdy. ''We don't want to live like this. We want to live in peace.''
Other vegetable merchants, working on the main street in Mallawi, chimed in. One says he was detained for 14 days, beaten, and questioned about his knowledge of the Islamic Group. Another says the police regularly knock down his box of money on the ground or throw and stomp on his vegetables.
Nevertheless, the police tactics seem to be working -- villagers sharply criticized the Islamic Group, and human rights activists and political analysts confirmed that residents are not helping or joining the militants.
But this strategy is not endearing the government to the people of Minya province, where poverty is widespread, unemployment high, and government services, like education and health care, are few.
Some wonder if in the long run the anger these people feel toward the police will just lead to more Islamic extremism.